(ATR) Rafer Johnson was a giant in the Olympics. From the 1960 Games in Rome to Atlanta in 1996, Johnson carried the flame, figuratively and literally.
He died of natural causes Dec. 2 at his home in Sherman Oaks, California.
Johnson was born in Texas but in grew up in California where he graduated from the University of California Los Angeles. A talented athlete, he played basketball, football and track and field. He chose athletics as his specialty, the decathlon the event best suited to his multi-talents.
A silver medal in Melbourne 1956 Olympics inspired Johnson to stick with sport and go for the gold in Rome 1960.
Johnson the Olympian was also recognized as a leader. He was elected student body president at UCLA. He was selected to speak on behalf of the US team going to Rome and became the first Black chosen to carry the U.S. flag as the captain of the team in 1960.
His victory in the Rome decathlon was an extraordinary contest, pitting him against a fellow UCLA teammate who was competing for Formosa, as Chinese Taipei was known at the time by the IOC.
Johnson, then 25, retired from competition at the end of the Rome Olympics. The career that followed seemed to reflect Johnson’s multitasking skills. He made numerous TV and movie appearances as an actor. In 1964 he also tried his hand at journalism, reporting for NBC TV on the Tokyo Olympics.
He became a prominent supporter of the SpecialOlympics, befriending the Kennedy family through his involvement.
In 1968, Johnson was standing near Robert Kennedy as he was fatally shot. Johnson wrestled the gun from the hand of assassin Sirhan Sirhan. Johnson says he put it in his coat pocket and forgot he had the weapon until sometime later when he turned it over to police.
In the late 1970s, Johnson was recruited by Peter Ueberroth to join the board of the 1984 Olympics In Los Angeles.
He wasselected as the final torchbearer for the opening ceremony In the iconic Coliseum used for the 1932 Los Angeles Games.
Johnson writes in his memoir that the experience forced him to recall the will to win that led him to a gold medal.
"I was, in a sense, an Olympian again, preparing to will my body to do something exceptional. Was I concerned about making it to the top of the stairs? Yes. Was I thinking about whether I might trip or fall? Yes. Did I have any doubt that I would come through? No," wrote Johnson.
In 1996, Johnson would once again hold the Olympic flame, this time for the Atlanta Games. He was the first person to carry the flame in the US when it arrived in Los Angeles for the start of the cross country Olympic Torch Relay.
Johnson talked to Around the Rings Editor Ed Hula in 1995 about lighting the Olympic cauldron as well as changes he had seen for athletes at the Olympics since he had competed.
Here is the conversation recorded at the 1995 Olympic Festival in Colorado Springs.
AroundTheRings · In The Moment - Rafer Johnson Talks Olympics, Torch Relay
Reported by Ed Hula.